On December 10, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library paid tribute to poet Emily Dickinson by celebrating her birthday in the best way possible -- with readings, wine, and her famous black cake.

Everyone reads Emily Dickinson's work at some point or another, either as a begrudging high schooler or later in life as a willing adult.

This year’s Folger Shakespeare Library tribute to the poet’s 132nd birthday focused on the importance of letters in Emily’s life, as well as the lives of the scholars who wrote about her. Before the readings, the Folger Theatre showed a soon-to-be-released film called Wild Nights With Emily. Directed by Madeleine Olnekof, the film shows a rarely seen side of the poet.  

Jen Bervin, the editor of The Gorgeous Nothings, the first color compilation of Dickinson’s later work written on envelopes, read from her research on the letters Jay Leyda exchanged with colleagues while in the process of putting together his book The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. Leyda had struggled with the compilation of his book because he had wanted it to just be manuscripts with no supplemental text. But unfortunately, Dickinson's estate had given all of her works to Harvard, and they maintained the copyrights, meaning many of the originals were unattainable to Leyda.

Dr. Martha Nell Smith also presented on letters and how they bring truth to the lies that we are often told about Dickinson and her work. She mainly addressed two myths about Dickinson that are widely mistaken for truth. The first myth is that Dickinson never published in her lifetime. Now, while it is true that she never published in any newspaper, magazine, or book, she did send out hundreds of poems in her letters. Dr. Nell Smith joked that she has built an entire career around reading Dickinson’s mail, but it is true that the letters show a different side of her. Dr. Nell Smith believes that Emily and Susan Dickinson were finicky about print publishers because Emily did not want to be misrepresented, and they already hadn't taken her seriously. The second myth Dr. Nell Smith presented was that Susan Dickinson did not matter in Emily Dickinson’s life. To clarify, Susan Dickinson was a dear friend of Emily’s who eventually became her sister-in-law. However, by reading her mail, Dr. Nell Smith discovered that Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds more letters to Susan than to any other correspondent in her lifetime. That fact alone shows that Susan was more important to Emily than anyone else, but also, Emily allowed Susan to offer edits and revise her work, which is not really seen with any other of her correspondents.

After the talks and small Q and A with Jen Bervin, Dr. Nell Smith, and Madeleine Olnek, came the best part: cake! Suga Chef prepared the Dickinson black cake recipe, and of course, it was delightful. The cake is full of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, as well as pieces of dried apricots, prunes, and pears. It tasted a bit like fruitcake but was of much better quality than the ones sold in stores. The cake, of course, paired marvelously with the sauvignon blanc that accompanied it.

In terms of my take on the event, I’ll admit that much of Jen Bervin’s talk went over my head because I have never had a deep and in-depth study of what happened to Dickinson's works after she died. The story of Jay Leyda is very interesting, especially how he managed to make a book out of material that was largely inaccessible to him. However, because I didn’t have prior knowledge to his work, the presentation was hard to follow at times because she only showed his letters and did not give context for them. However, Dr. Nell Smith’s talk was much more understandable to the casual poetry reader and brought insight to parts of Emily Dickinson that I had never thought about before. I had always wondered why she never published, and I'd never found any answers until Dr. Nell Smith’s talk.

Did you attend the Folger event on Monday? And what was your take on it? Did you read Dickinson’s work in high school, or are you reading any of her work now? Would you go see Wild Nights With Emily when it comes to theatres? Let us know in the comments below!


Head to the Folger Consort for a seasonal celebration of early English music! Learn all about it here!

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